NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ONE (Part XXII)
No doubt Paul remembered his time in Athens where he told the city council: “We all come from God. So you must not think that He is like something people imagine or make up. He is not made of gold, silver, or stone.”1 So that raises a question for us to consider: Is it wrong to talk about God seeing us, hearing us, speaking to us, lifting us up, understanding us, or His healing touch, etc.? No! Absolutely not. Just as long as we don’t insist that His eyes, ears, mouth, arms, hands, and mind are exactly like ours. All of our senses are finite, that’s why our organs were made the way they were, each with limits. But God is limitless. There’s nothing He cannot see or see through; nothing He cannot hear, nothing He cannot do, and there is nothing He does not know. Philo the Jewish philosopher said a similar thing to what Paul said, that the Jews had: “Forsaken the true God and made for themselves false gods, of perishable and created substances, calling them by the name which only belongs to the uncreated and everlasting God.”2
In examining this verse, early church theologian Origen says: “We ought not to overlook this passage. The apostle is not merely complaining about those who worship idols, but he should also be understood to be refuting the Anthropomorphites,3 who are found inside the church, who say that the bodily image of man is just like the image of God, ignoring the fact that it is written in Genesis that the whole person is created in the image of God,4 which must be understood as it is interpreted by the apostle, when he said: ‘You have put off the old man with his behavior and you have put on the new man, which is created according to God.’5 … Elsewhere Paul calls this the ‘inner man’ and regards the corrupt bodily image as the ‘outer man.’6 … The mistake of those who think that it is this outer man which is the image of God is, therefore, obvious.”7 In other words, if you want to look like Christ, it’s not how you resemble Him mortally on the outside, but how you resemble Him morally on the inside.
On the subject of mankind making gods to worship instead of worshiping God Himself, John Calvin has this to say: “Having made up such a God as they could comprehend according to their carnal reason, they were very far from acknowledging the true God: but devised a fictitious and a new god, or rather a phantom. And what Paul says is, that they changed the glory of God… so they departed from the true God. Nor are they to be excused for this pretense, that they believe that God dwells in heaven and that they count not the wood [idol] to be God, but his image; for it is a great indignity to God, to form so gross an idea of His Majesty as to dare to make a [supposed] image of Him. But from the wickedness of such a presumption none were exempt, neither priests, nor statesmen, nor philosophers, of whom the most sound-minded, even Plato himself, sought to discover some likeness of God.”8
Bible scholar Charles Hodge gives a profound exposition on how the minds of these false god worshipers became so disoriented: “Some professed to regard the visible image as a mere symbol of the real object of their adoration; while others believed that the gods in some way filled these idols, and operated through them; and others again, that the universal principle of being was revered under these manifestations. The Scriptures take no account of these destinations. All who bowed down to stocks and stones are denounced as worshiping gods which their own hands had made, and idolatry is made to include not merely the worship of false gods, but the worship of the true God by images. The universal prevalence of idolatry among the heathens, notwithstanding the revelation which God had made of Himself in His works, is the evidence which Paul adduces to prove that they are ungodly, and consequently exposed to that wrath which is revealed against all ungodliness.”9
In other words, it’s one thing to know that the idol, image, or icon to which you pay homage represents God or is even made in the likeness of God. But when the mind becomes so blind and disillusioned that you actually believe that the true and living God inhabits this dead hand-made god, thereby making it divine and powerful, then the anchor to spiritual reality has been pulled loose and the mind then can drift anywhere and believe anything, no matter how imaginary it may be. As Douglas Moo comments: “This tragic process of human ‘god-making’ continues apace in our own day, and Paul’s words have as much relevance for people who have made money or sex or fame their gods as for those who carved idols out of wood and stone.”10 But let me go a little further on how false images of God are fashioned. In our own day, some people worship the god of their imagination, they believe they know God because of the image planted in their minds by their parents, Sunday school teachers, Pastors, books they’ve read, and even those icons seen in painted pictures or small religious statues.
Verse 24: People wanted only to do evil. So God released them and let them go their sinful way. And so they became completely immoral and used their bodies in shameful ways with each other.
It is even more clear now that Paul is referring to what he saw among the Greeks, especially in Athens, as well as Corinth just 50 miles away. Many of the ancient Greek documents have subliminal hints at many of these immoral activities, as well as outright documentation of Temple prostitution, all done in the name of their religion. This if confirmed by the Greek geographer Strabo who wrote around 20 AD: “And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, ‘Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth.‘”11
This distressed Paul because of the possible influence it had on believers who might be tempted to return to their old ways. For instance, he warned the Ephesians: “I have something from the Lord to tell you. I warn you: Don’t keep copying those who don’t believe. Their thoughts are worth nothing. They have no understanding, and they know nothing because they refuse to listen. So they cannot have the life that God gives. They have lost their feeling of shame and use their lives to do what is morally wrong. More and more they want to do all kinds of evil.”12
So it is no wonder that Paul wrote the Corinthians and told them: “The body is not for sexual sin. The body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. And God will raise our bodies from death with the same power He used to raise the Lord Jesus. Surely you know that your bodies are parts of Christ Himself. So I must never take what is part of Christ and join it to a prostitute!”13 He then advises them: “So run away from sexual sin. It involves the body in a way that no other sin does. So if you commit sexual sin, you are sinning against your own body. You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit that you received from God and that lives in you. You don’t own yourselves. God paid a very high price to make you His. So honor God with your body.”14
The Thessalonians must have had a similar problem, so Paul wrote them: “God wants each one of you to learn to control your own body. Use your body in a way that is holy and that gives honor to God. Don’t let your sexual desires control you like the people who don’t know God.”15 Paul uses this illustration to make his point: “In a mansion there are things made of gold and silver. But there are also things made of wood and pottery. Some of these are used for special purposes, others for regular jobs. The Lord wants to use you for special purposes, so make yourself clean from all evil. Then you will be holy, and the Master can use you. You will be ready for any good work.”16
Early church scholars had several views on the subject of God giving up on mankind and thereby allowed them to slip further into sin. One writer notes: “In saying that God gave them up to their own lusts, Paul is not claiming that God is the direct cause of this but merely that since God did not bring vengeance on them after much longsuffering and patience, He allowed them to act according to their own desires. He did this, wanting them to be converted to repentance.”17 And Bishop Theodoret makes this comment: “By saying ‘gave them up,’ Paul means that God permitted this to happen. He simply abandoned them because they had fallen into extreme ungodliness.”18
Also, early church theologian Augustine addresses this subject in different writings. He says: “This means that God abandoned them to the desires of their own hearts. For Paul says that they got what they deserved from God.”19 In another place, Augustine writes: “When the evil will receives power to accomplish its purpose, this comes from the judgment of God, in whom there is no unrighteousness. His punishment is carried out in this way as well as in other ways. It is not less just merely because it is hidden. The wicked man only knows that he is being punished when some clear penalty makes him feel, against his will, the evil of the sin which he committed willingly.”20 And on another occasion, Augustine makes this point: “Many are left to themselves, to their own hurt.… A man that has asked for great wealth may have received it to his own hurt. While he was without it had little to fear; as soon as he has possession of it, he has become a prey to the stronger.”21
So we can see a consensus among early church scholars that while God abandoned wicked people to wallow in their own sinful dilemma, He did not forsake them altogether. Today this action by God might be labeled as “tough love.” But it also reflects God’s grace. As the apostle, Paul, says elsewhere in his commentary on Romans: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”22 That does not cheapen grace so it can be used as one desires to their own advantage. No! But used in the same way it was in the case of King David and Nathan the prophet, after David’s adultery with Bathsheba.23 According to Jewish law, such an act of adultery and murder was paid for by the culprit with their life. But in David’s case, God decided to allow His grace to be sufficient in covering David’s sin because He still had more for David to do that would honor Him.
1 Acts of the Apostles 17:29
2 Philo of Alexandria: On the Life of Moses, Bk. 2, Ch. 32 (171)
3 In 399 AD rumors began to circulate about ‘anthropomorphites’ dwelling in the Egyptian desert: uneducated monks who crudely believed that God had a body.
4 Genesis 1:26-27
5 Colossians 3:8-10
6 See Romans 7:22
7 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
8 Calvin: On Romans, 1:23
9 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.
10 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 110
11 Strabo, Geography, Bk. 8, Ch. 6, Sec 20
12 Ephesians 4:17-19
13 1 Corinthians 6:13-15; No doubt Paul is referencing the prostitutes in the pagan temples as part of their worship.
14 Ibid. 6:18-20
15 1 Thessalonians 4:4-5
16 2 Timothy 2:20-21
17 Pseudo Constantius: Holy Letter on Romans, loc. cit.
18 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, loc. cit.
19 Augustine: On Romans 5, loc. cit.
20 Ibid, The Spirit and the Letter 54
21 Ibid, Homilies on 1 John 6:8
22 Romans 5:20
23 2 Samuel 12:13